The Cult of “Great Product”

Many of the most successful founders, CEOs and VCs in Silicon Valley belong to the cult of great product.  They understand that a great product is critical to the success of a startup.  News around the life of Steve Jobs has galvanized even more people to jump on the “great product” bandwagon.  Generally this is a good thing, but there tends to be a lot of confusion about what makes a great product.

Great products aren’t anointed by product gurus.  Only customers can decide if a product is great.

Customers will decide your product is great if you can map it to their motivation for changing to your solution.  All customers change from something.  Generally they either switch from a competitive solution or from just tolerating a problem without a solution.  New products should decide on one of these markets.  Trying to serve both markets generally leads to failure.

One way to decide which market to serve is to ask yourself: “when we are generating $100m in revenue, which type of customer do we think will contribute the majority of this revenue?”  Your guess is usually the market you should serve.

Greenfield Customers

If you decide to target “greenfield” people (those without a current solution), then your product roadmap should be focused on simple, effective execution of their desired task.  Simplicity is usually much more important for greenfield users than being feature rich. Dropbox is a great example of a product that has succeeded in a greenfield market with a dead simple solution.   For some categories, features do eventually become important to users, but on a greenfield user’s first experience they should not be emphasized.

Competitive Solution Customers

If you are targeting people who will be switching from another solution, then usually features are an important part of people’s decision to try it.  In this case, you’ll want to make sure that you at least have parity on the key features.  Of course they have no reason to switch if everything you do is the same, so you’ll need to understand their switching motivation.  If you can differentiate on one of the key gripes of the competitive solution, there is a good chance you can be successful.  Common gripes include price, reliability, poor customer service, lack of key features, etc.  You’ll need to both message this differentiation and also deliver on the promise. A “false promise” will cause a high churn rate (people who stop using your product).

Reduce Conversion Hurdles

Either way, switching takes a lot of guts and effort.  Most people are afraid and/or complacent about switching.  Even for those who take the initiative to consider your solution, most will give up before actually trying it.  So it’s also critical to reduce all hurdles that may cause them to abandon the conversion process.

You’ll know you have created a great product when users tell you they can’t live without it.  Unfortunately the “cult of great product” occasionally forgets about these critical components of building an indispensible product.